Union Co. opioid overdose deaths up 166% in 2023, mostly from fentanyl

Law enforcement says many of the 32 deaths in 2023 were first-time users who didn’t know they were taking fentanyl.

ONROE, N.C. (WBTV) – A 166% increase in opioid deaths happened in Union County last year, with fentanyl being the main factor.

The Union County Sheriff’s Office wants families to be aware that many of the victims are not serious drug users, but rather first-time users who may not even know they’re taking fentanyl.

According to the Union County Sheriff’s Office, 32 people died from opioid overdoses in 2023. That’s 166% higher than the previous year. Additionally, overdose calls were up 17% in the county at 170 in total.

Union County Sheriff’s Lt. James Maye said that it’s important for people, especially parents, to be aware of the hidden dangers of fentanyl. First, it’s incredibly potent.

“Powdered fentanyl, you’re talking about an amount less than the size of a penny could end a person’s life,” Maye said.

Those taking fentanyl often aren’t even aware they’ve done so.

“It’s often not your longtime drug user,” Maye said. “It may be one of your teenagers, a local student. They may want to try something like Xanax or Adderall, but it could be fentanyl and they don’t even know it.”

Nationwide backlog hinders investigations

Fentanyl’s grip extends beyond Union County. In the state of North Carolina, the increase in cases has created a backlog in blood toxicology tests.

Most of these tests must be processed in Raleigh, often taking weeks, even months, to deliver results. This delay, Maye pointed out, significantly hampers investigations.

“We don’t have blood toxicology results, which means a lot of times we can’t take that offender off the street, and that offender’s free to harm other people potentially,” he said.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the Union County Sheriff’s Office is taking proactive measures.

Across the hall from their evidence room, a new crime lab is taking shape. Equipped with cutting-edge technology and trained personnel, the lab will soon be able to conduct its own toxicology tests, significantly reducing turnaround times.

“We could have results in less than two weeks instead of a year,” Maye said.

The lieutenant emphasized that sharing the grim statistics wasn’t meant to instill fear, but rather to raise awareness about the dangers lurking within seemingly harmless pills.

Maye urged the community to download the Union County Sheriff’s Office app and share any information related to opioid activity.

“Fentanyl and opioids don’t just affect one class of people,” Maye said. “This can affect you and your family and we don’t want other parents in our community to have to find their loved one deceased way too soon.”

Read the full article and watch the video on the WBTV3 website.